In the climactic final scene of Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine, the highest grossing documentary before Moore's own Fahrenheit 9/11, the rotund one stalks Charlton Heston, the elderly president of the National Rifle Association, to his lair, and asks him:
Moore: But you don't have any opinion as to why we're the unique country, the only country that does this? That kills each other at this level with guns.
Heston: Well, we have, probably a more mixed ethnicity, than other countries, some other countries.
Moore pounces on Heston's shocking faux pas:
Moore: …So you think it's an ethnic thing?
Sensing his gaffe, Heston paddles desperately upstream:
Heston: Well, I don't think it's—I wouldn't go as far as to say that. We had enough problems with civil rights in the beginning.
For mentioning ethnicity's connection to crime, Heston was trashed in the press as a racist. However, his announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer's led many critics to recommend pity rather than censure—he must have been senile to say such a horrible thing.
Yet everybody knows Heston was telling the truth. I've only met one man in my life who adamantly argued in private conversation that there are no racial differences in crime rates. An Oregonian, he told me it was racist to assume blacks are more likely to be muggers than whites are.
I proposed to him a thought experiment:
"Say your wife's car runs out of gas in the middle of the night in a desolate neighborhood. She has no idea which way to walk to find a gas station. However, if she walks one way she has to pass by a half dozen black youths lounging on a corner. If she walks the other way, she would have to pass by a half dozen Indian immigrant youths. Which way would you prefer she went?"
"I would be completely indifferent," he replied.
"Well, then, for your sake, I'm glad you live in Grant's Pass."
"Where I live is irrelevant!" he responded triumphantly. "I've already been mugged three times!"
The ethnic gap in crime proclivities is one of those subjects that everybody accepts when discussing real estate (which is all about location, location, location), but nobody writes about.
To test this, I looked in the search engine of Slate.com, the pioneering public affairs webzine that combines a slightly snarky attitude with Establishment respectability. I checked to see how many of the thousands of articles it has published since 1996 include the words "race crime rate."
There was only one article with a strong match, but this 1999 essay was surprisingly blunt: "Janet Reno's Justice Department flatly states that 'blacks are 8 times more likely than whites to commit homicide.'"
"Wait a minute. This article seems strangely familiar," I thought. "Oh, of course, it's by … me."
And that may explain why I haven't been invited back to write for Slate since!
A Russian immigrant called me up once to ask why almost no other American journalist ever mentioned the racial patterns he had seen with his own eyes everyday since he'd come to America. When I explained that the average writer was just lying, he replied:
Vladimir (audibly relieved): "You mean, he's hypocrite?"
Me: "Yeah, exactly. It would hurt his career to write for the public what he thinks in his private life."
Vladimir: "Thank God!"
Vladimir: "Hypocrite I understand. I grow up in Soviet Union. Lying to save your job, that's life. No, I was very worried smart people in America weren't hypocrites. You know, this country is supposed to be land of free, home of brave. I was scared that smart Americans weren't hypocrites, but instead were hallucinating. I am very happy to hear they're just hypocrites. Hypocrisy much less scary than mass hallucination."
Actually, the government makes much detailed information on crime rates by race available. But almost nobody ever tries to learn anything from it.
Also, there's been this frustrating problem: In crime statistics, Hispanics are often lumped in with non-Hispanic whites. This has the effect of narrowing the gap between the black and white crime rates by inflating the white rate. It also obscures the relatively high rate of Hispanic crime.
Bureaucrats are normally very scrupulous about breaking out data by Hispanic ethnicity. It's impossible to avoid the conclusion that this is done to make diversity in general, and current immigration in particular, look better.
Fortunately, a liberal activist group called the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives crunched state-level data for a 2001 report that managed to break out the number of Hispanic prisoners in most states. The data is from 1997, but it appears to be the best we have.
I graphed 1997 imprisonment rates per 100,000 people for non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and Hispanics, all using the same scale with yellow as low and purple as high. Here's the non-Hispanic white imprisonment map:
As you can see, in all states, white imprisonment rates are relatively low, so the whole map comes out in shades of yellow. The largest percentages of whites are imprisoned in old Wild West states: Alaska, Oklahoma, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. Whites are least likely to be locked up in the District of Columbia, Minnesota, New Jersey (much to the surprise of Sopranos fans), North Dakota, and New York.
But it's also worth keeping in mind that the average age of a state can affect the crime rate. North Dakota, for instance, is an older state that has a hard time hanging on to its young folk. In general, that's bad, but it has the good side effect of lowering the crime rate, since crime is a young man's profession.
There's a moderate correlation (r = 0.44) between a state voting for Bush and having a higher white imprisonment rate.
Here is the black crime rate:
As you can see, for blacks, many states reach the color scale's maximum of 3 percent of the population in jail. So they show up as solid purple.
The state with the highest rate of black imprisonment, with 4.8 percent of the black population—male and female, young and old—behind bars, is Iowa. (Bet you didn't guess that.) It's followed by Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and Connecticut.
The only two states with less than 1 percent of their black population imprisoned are Hawaii and North Dakota. I suspect that many of their blacks got there via the U.S. military and are thus pre-selected for discipline and intelligence.
The most striking feature of this map is relatively low rate of black imprisonment in the Old South.
Here's the Hispanic imprisonment rate map. Unfortunately, the data were either completely missing or obviously inadequate for ten states, which show up in black.
Clearly, Hispanics fall between whites and blacks in their tendency to be incarcerated.
The Northeast has the worst-behaved Hispanics in the country, followed by the Southwest. Florida, of all the states with a large Latino population, has the best-behaved Hispanics.
There is a racial aspect to this. Northeastern Latinos have traditionally consisted of mulatto islanders, such as Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Southwestern Hispanics are mostly mestizo Mexicans and Central Americans. Florida Hispanics were traditionally white Cubans.
The South has low numbers of Latinos in prison relative to their population sizes.
But that could be an artifact of the currently exploding Hispanic population there. A state's imprisonment rate tends to lag its immigration rate. Someone who has been in a state for a only a short time has had less chance to get caught and jailed than someone who has been there his whole life.
So it's hard to say what the future holds for the South.
States vary in laws and zeal of enforcement (although the federal sentencing guidelines have narrowed some of the differences in recent years). That's why it's useful to also map the ratio of black to white imprisonment rates. In the following map, ratios of more than 20 blacks imprisoned for every white (on a per capita basis) show up as bright red. Less than 3 blacks imprisoned per white shows as a bright green.
Nationally, blacks are imprisoned on average 9.1 times as often as whites.
If this high rate of black imprisonment was caused by anti-black conservatism, then the ratio of blacks to whites imprisoned should be highest in Republican strongholds like the Old South. But instead, it is lowest there of any major region.
Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are only about six times more likely to imprison blacks than whites—just two-thirds of the national average.
In contrast, by far the greatest racial disparity was found in the most liberal spot on the map: the black-run District of Columbia, where Bush won only nine percent of the vote. Blacks in Washington D.C. are 56 times more likely than whites to wind up in the slammer.
The next biggest gap was 31 to 1 in Minnesota, which has normally been quite a bit more liberal than the typical heartland state.
Overall, the two regions with the biggest racial differences in black-white imprisonment rates are the Old Northwest and the Mid-Atlantic.
States with relatively high black vs. white imprisonment rates tended to vote for Kerry—the correlation was a strong r = 0.62
Obviously, the discrimination explanation for the racial gap does not hold water.
Another popular theory, put forward by New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield in his 1996 book All God's Children is, in the words of an Amazon.com reviewer:
"… that the primary origin of black violence is the tradition of white violence that was transferred to them from their former slave owners."
Of course, looked at from an international perspective, this theory requires Occam's Butterknife at its dullest. It would requite a local rationalization for each of the many countries with violent black communities.
Thus, presumably, the extreme crime in the black favelas of Brazil, as seen in the terrific 2003 movie City of God, is in imitation of the Portuguese; the sometimes genocidal violence in Ethiopia was learned from the Italians during their five brief years of colonization; and Shaka (1785-1828), King of the Zulus, would have been a pacifist if not for those vicious vibrations emanating from white men somewhere over the horizon.
But Fox Butterknife's hypothesis makes little sense even within the U.S. As we have seen, the most crime-prone blacks are in Iowa and Wisconsin, where whites were traditionally quite law-abiding. In contrast, the most honest blacks tend to be found in the Cotton Belt, where the Butterfield-Marshall theory predicts they should be most contaminated by white duelists.
What about Hispanics? Here is the Hispanic to white imprisonment ratio:
Nationally, Hispanics are on average 3.7 times as likely as whites to be imprisoned.
The second worst ratio is in the Old Northwest, where whites are well-behaved.
Mexican-Americans are found most in the Southwest, where the white crime rate is above average.
The Hispanic crime rate is lower than the African-American mark. But at the current pace of immigration, legal and illegal, the number of Hispanic criminals should exceed the current number of black criminals within a few decades.
Immigrants may not have built America, but they are certainly building its prison population.